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but merely as a partial apology for the defects that may be found in it.
In the preparation of all works of this character, there are difficulties which they only can appreciate who have been engaged in such labors. But in this work the difficulties are peculiar: First, from the two questions, that must, at the very outset, be answered—What is American Literature? and, When does it begin? Secondly, from the vast amount of material to select from, at times absolutely overwhelming. And, thirdly, from the impossibility of giving entire satisfaction either to living authors, or to the friends and kindred of those that are deceased.
Respecting the question, what is American Literature, I would remark that, in my view, it would be absurd to apply this term to the occasional and transient literary effusions that appeared on this side of the Atlantic, for a century after the settlement of the country. Colonies of Great Britain, speaking the same language, governed by the same laws, manufacturing but little ourselves, but dependent on the mother country for a large portion of our material comforts, it was natural for us to look to her also for our intellectual aliment. And we did so. Not even forty years ago, the “Edinburgh Review” thus wrote: “Literature, the Americans have none; no native literature
But why should the Americans write books, when a six weeks' passage brings them, in their own tongue, our sense, science, and genius, in bales and hogsheads ?" At this very plain language, that had a good deal of truth in it, we were much offended, which was very foolish. We might have answered the reviewer somewhat thus: “True, we have
Vol. xxxi. p. 144, December, 1818.
had as yet but little literature of our own. We have had a greater, a higher, a nobler work to do than to write books. We have had to found a great nation. A vast continent was before us to subdue. The means whereby to live' were first to be provided. Dwellings were to be built; school-houses and church edifices were to be erected; literary, scientific, and religious educational institutions were to be founded; and then, in the natural course of things, would come forth and be embodied, the creations of the intellect, the fancy, and the imagination. In short, instead of writing any great work, we were acting a still greater one. We were making those very subjects upon which the future historian, traveller, essayist, poet, might employ his pen for the delight and instruction of other generations.” Such might have been our answer; and who would not have acknowledged its conclusiveness?
But as soon as our “gristle was hardened into the bone of manhood," we began to think of setting up for ourselves; and then, indeed, we began to think for ourselves. And here we have an answer, as correct as I can give, to the question, what is American Literature; namely, that it is the product of those minds that have been nurtured, trained, developed, matured, on our own soil, by the manners, habits, scenery, circumstances, and institutions peculiar to ourselves. This answer, too, determines, with considerable precision, the date of American Literature - that its native growth and development began with our Revolutionary period. Our first thoughts were, of course, directed to our own condition, to our relations to the mother country, to our forms of government, and to the great principles of political government, of public economy, and of civil liberty; and then came forth, Minerva-like, a literature of
a political character, to which, for strength, clearness, and comprehensiveness of thought, for just and sound reasoning, and for effective and lofty eloquence, the world had never seen the parallel ; for the high encomium passed by Edmund Burke upon our first colonial Congress is no less beautiful than just. This literature is embodied in the speeches and letters of James Otis, the elder Adams, Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Jay, Madison, and other patriots of the Revolution. Thenceforth, by degrees, as our strength increased, as our views expanded, as our facilities for learning were multiplied, as our scholarship assamed a higher and a higher grade, we entered, successively, the various fields of literature, and reaped rich and still richer harvests from them all, so that our dear good old mother is now proud to acknowledge us as her own, and to confess that in some of the walks of science we have, in our onward march, left even her behind. In History, she acknowledges that Irving, Prescott, Bancroft, Hildreth, and Motley are equal to any on her side of the Atlantic. In Theology and Biblical Literature, Dwight and Barnes have, probably, as many readers in England, as here; while no review in that department in Great Britain is superior, for varied and profound learning, to “The Bibliotheca Sacra.” As a novelist, the English Reviews themselves being judges, Mrs. Stowe is without a rival in either hemisphere; as many copies, probably, of Bryant and Longfellow have been sold in England, as of Coleridge or
1. The London Quarterly Review,” for December, 1841 (only twenty-three years after the extract from “ The Edinburgh Review” just quoted was written), in reviewing Dr. Robinson's Palestine, thus writes: "We are not altogether pleased that for the best and most copious work on the geography and antiquities of the Holy Land, though written in English, we should be indebted to an American divine."
Wordsworth, or Tennyson ; while many annotated and elucidated editions of classic authors by our own scholars are extensively studied in English schools. So that now “The Edinburgh Review” might ask with truth the reverse question _“ Who does NOT read an American book ?"
Having fixed the date of the origin of our native literature at the latter half of the last century, the question arose with what author I should begin. Here there seemed little difficulty in deciding. The great light of the last century was, undoubtedly, Jonathan Edwards, distinguished not more for his learning and piety, than by originality of genius, and a mind unmistakably American in its habits of thought and action. But after him, the number that might, with some show of reason, put in their claim to come within the scope of such a work, increased more and more, until it has, within the past thirty years, become so great as to be really embarrassing. And here, doubtless, will be found the chief failing of my humble volume; here is a field ample enough for the most vituperative critic to exercise his skill in. Many will see that some favorite piece, or it may be some favorite author has been left out; and may hastily ask why it is so. It is enough to reply, that I could not pat in everything—no, not a thousandth part of what has been written. Even the TITLES of all the books written by American authors would fill a volume half as large as this. But, if it will be any gratification to these querists, I will candidly acknowledge that I myself see, after my book is now made up, many ways in which it might be improved, and that many authors are not in it that should be ; and it will be my pleasure to make amends for whatever sins of omission or of commission may be pointed out to me, should my book reach another edition, and be put in the stereotyped, permanent
form. In the mean time, I earnestly hope that any friend (or foe,' if I have one) will candidly and freely communicate to me his views. Every one will look at the subject from a different stand-point; and I will sincerely thank each and all to do what they can to place me in their position, that I may, as far as possible, see with their eyes.
But, whatever want of judgment may be laid to my charge, either in deciding upon the authors to be admitted into my book, or of taste in selecting from their works, I trust that no one will be able with justice to impugn my honesty. At least I have endeavored, uninfluenced by fear or favor, to represent my authors fairly, and to let them speak out whatever sentiments were dearest to their hearts. To bave done otherwise, would have been as dishonorable as unjust. One, for instance, has made Freedom the chief burden of his writings; another has been most interested in the cause of Temperance-both subjects peculiarly American; and the warmest feelings of my heart, and my own life-long principles have here fully harmonized with my sense of justice, to represent the humanity and philanthropy, as well as the cultivated intellect, of such gifted minds.
In conclusion, I would only remark that I can desire no greater favor to be shown by the public to this, than has been extended to my two former volumes. My publishers--and no author could in this respect be more highly favored-have done their part, as before, in a style of great beauty; so that no series of books, I believe, have ever been offered to the public at so moderate a price, considering their amount of reading matter, and their mechanical execution.
"Oh, that mine adversary had written a book.” Job xxxi. 25. That is, that he would set forth all my defects, so that I may see myself as he sees me.